Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Trek to the Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda with Bizidanny Tours (Review)

Guhonda, oldest Silverback mountain gorilla in Rwanda

So today is a totally different post from normal - it has nothing to do with nail polish or beauty, but I wanted to share a highlight from my recent trip to Rwanda: trekking to see the mountain gorillas.  If you're reading because you're thinking of booking a trip to see the gorillas and you're looking for more information about permits and the process of finding a company, head to the bottom of the post where I've described it in more detail.

I booked my trip with Bizidanny Tours and couldn't have been more delighted with them.  My English-speaking driver, Bosco, was there to greet me at Kigali Airport when we landed from Kamembe.  That afternoon we drove up to Ruhengeri, in Rwanda's Northern Province.  On the way we stopped at some beautiful view points, from where I could appreciate the patchwork landscape - small banana plantations here, some coffee plants there - and I even tasted a raw coffee bean.  Bosco was great company and we had long discussions about Rwanda as it is now, but he also let me into the history of the country, which for every Rwandan over the age of 20 is all too vivid in the memory.

Bizidanny Tours
Bosco and our enormous minibus - just for me!
Rwanda - Land of a thousand hills
Rwanda is not called the Land of a Thousand Hills for nothing

Stopping to check out a waterfall en route
After a three hour drive (which went by in a flash) I spent the night at the Hotel La Palme (more on that below).  It was an early start the next morning as your guide has to present your permit at 7am in the Volcanoes National Park, where all the groups are allocated (the only choice you really have is whether your trek is easy, moderate or hard - which applies to terrain and duration of the trek - and your guide helps you choose the right one).  We arrived at the VNP to see some Rwandan dancing (by ex-poachers, now dancers) before meeting our group for a briefing.

Rwandan dancing
Traditional Rwandan dancing
Our group was an American/Australian/British mix of eight people and we were off to visit the Sabyinyo Group.  We paid $10 each for a porter to carry our backpacks (a number of the porters are ex-poachers too, so it's seen as a good idea to get a porter, quite apart from the fact that it made the trek a much more pleasant experience) and trekked for near two hours through open land as well as forest to meet up with the trackers who were keeping tabs on the whereabouts of the gorillas.  I was pretty glad to have spent the previous two weeks in Rwanda being able to acclimatise to the altitude!

Rwandan countryside and landscape
Rwanda's countryside is a undulating patchwork quilt of different crops and vegetation 
On nearing the gorillas, the porters take the bags off so that the gorillas don't try to find themselves a tasty morsel they can smell tucked away in a backpack.  My first sighting of a gorilla was one pounding past us through the forest - the rest we found rather more sedate as they were in the middle of post-eating naps (with the exception of a couple of one year old toddlers who were full of energy and desperate to wake silverback dad up.  Silverback dad was having none of it).

A one year old toddler picks his nose
Mum and one day old baby gorilla
Chilled out one moment, this toddler fell out of his bamboo perch seconds later
"It is not nap time, it is time for CLIMBING TREES"
Guhonda, probably the oldest silverback mountain gorilla in Rwanda
We spent about an hour and a quarter sitting with the gorillas and watching them.  They couldn't have been less bothered by our presence and just happily lay about, or in the toddlers' cases, put on a bit of a show as many a human toddler is apt to do when given an audience.  The guides communicated in friendly coughs with the gorillas to keep them happy.  It was a really unforgettable experience to be as close as we were to the gorillas - the silverbacks are such phenomenally imposing animals (I was a bit disappointed not to see one standing up) and the power they are capable of wielding is so immense that it was rather humbling to be in their company.

On our way down, this is what we were trekking through
The trek down took about an hour and a half, which I wiled away by 'chatting' to the porters in Kinyarawanda.  Mainly we 'discussed' animals, which is about all my vocabulary can stretch to (oh, and whether they are amatungo (domestic) or inyamaswa (wild)).  After a lunch of possibly the most delicious cheese toastie I have ever tasted at the hotel Dian Fossey used to stay in, Bosco drove me up to see the twin volcanic lakes Bulera and Ruhondo.  This was some of the most breathtaking scenery I have seen in my life; although it wasn't quite on the same level as the gorillas of the morning, the ascent to the viewpoint to see the whole of the lakes was another highlight of my short stay in Rwanda.

Panorama of the twin volcanic lakes Bulera and Ruhondo
Selfie time with my guide, Bosco
Taking in the view from Virunga Lodge was a special moment
Although it's an extravagant excursion, it was worth every single penny.  Spending time with the gorillas is something I will never forget (and I would do it again in a shot if I ever have enough money!) and the rest of the trip in Bosco's company was also so very wonderful.

If you're here to find out more about booking a gorilla trek, read on...

Choosing a Company

There are so many different companies offering treks to the gorillas that I was overwhelmed by choice and daunted by a lack of reviews of the different companies.  When a couple of companies didn't respond to my emails, I asked my colleague who is a regular visitor to Rwanda for a recommendation.  Although he hadn't done the gorilla trek before, he had been on trips to Akagera National Park and Nyungwe Forest with Bizidanny Tours and spoke really highly of them, and the manager Danny Bizimana.

Bizidanny Tours

The first thing that impressed me about Bizidanny was how quickly Danny replied to my first email.  He confirmed that permits were still available for my chosen day and straightaway gave me an itinerary (in my email I had told him my flight information) and a quote for the trip - which included having an English-speaking driver pick me up from Kigali airport, take me up to the gorillas and drop me back at Kigali airport for my flight the following night.  [You pay a higher premium for having an English-speaking driver; since I was travelling alone I thought this essential].  I paid for the permit (see below) up front, as well as a 30% deposit for the transport and accommodation, which I transferred in $ to a Belgian bank account.  As soon as they received the money (more quickly than I had anticipated) they bought my permit and confirmed my trip.  The rest of the balance for the trip I paid in $ when I got to Kigali.

Throughout the whole process of booking and last minute queries, Danny was prompt to reply to my emails and did so with great patience!  Bosco, my driver, was an absolutely superb guide and if I ever go back to Rwanda (I'm hoping I will), I'll definitely be booking another trip with Bizidanny and will request Bosco again.

Hotel La Palme, Ruhengeri

I stayed at the Hotel La Palme, which is probably on the more budget end of the hotel scale in the area.  Since it's a very touristy area, there are some extremely nice lodges (Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge and Virunga Lodge are probably the top two), but I was on a budget and not too bothered about accommodation as long as it was clean and had a bed.  The staff were really friendly (it helps when you can greet them in Kinyarawanda) and the room clean, with a huge bed.  Although I was told there was hot water, either it wasn't working when I tried it or I was being an idiot and couldn't get it to work (I was too tired to try to find out).  Barking dogs aside, I had a good night's sleep and was ready for my 6.30am start to drive to the Volcanoes National Park.  There's a restaurant which serves a whole range of food at very reasonable prices.  I seemed to be the only diner, which was a slightly strange experience.  I wanted comfort food so I ordered an omelette and chips - which, to my surprise meant they put the chips in the omelette... but it was hot and edible.  Breakfast (included in the cost) was a plate of fruit, a choice of breads and you could also order hot items too.  The free wifi across the hotel was a complete luxury after two weeks of my iPhone being little more than a brick.

Gorilla Trek Permits

To visit the mountain gorillas in the Virunga National Park, which is on the Rwanda/Uganda border (the countries share three of the five volcanoes in the park), you will need a permit.  There are only a limited number of these available each day, so make sure you book your trip well in advance (when I booked for August 2nd in May this year, I was lucky that there were a few permits available - the week following was sold out every day).  The permit is $750 per person - which, let's be honest, is pretty pricey, but the money goes into conservation of the gorillas and paying people who work in the area enough money so that nobody goes poaching the gorillas.  The company will purchase the permit on your behalf (you'll need to provide full name, date of birth, nationality and passport number for the registration of the gorilla permit, but as my passport hadn't arrived when I booked it, it was fine to leave this until I was actually in Rwanda and on my expedition).

Please don't hesitate to email me if you have any questions about gorilla trekking I haven't answered in this post!

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